The Times – Chuck out these green myths<br/> Recycling isn’t anything like as eco-friendly as its propagandists would have us believe, by Ross Clark

Few conscientious, middle-class folk who sort out their waste into half a dozen different containers each week realise that technology already exists to make this palaver redundant. Many American cities have increased their recycling rates by switching to single-stream collections of recyclable waste that are then sorted in an automated plant. The collected waste is emptied on to a conveyor belt, where systems of magnets and optical scanners pick out most of what can be recycled, leaving humans to sort out the residue. When introduced in Maryland it resulted in 30 per cent more waste being recycled than under the previous system, where householders were made to sort out their recyclables by hand.


But I suspect it will be a long time before we see such technology here thanks to the near-religious fervour for recycling collections among British environmentalists. We are made to go through the weekly ritual of sorting our bottles from our magazines not because it is the best way of collecting recyclable material but because it is thought to be good for us.

The whole issue of recycling has been clouded by green ideology. The EU set it targets for increasing recycling back in 1999 without properly questioning whether that is always the best way of disposing of rubbish. That we can’t go on covering the country with landfill sites is obvious, but it is far less clear-cut whether recycling or incinerating waste is the best environmental option. Recycling your plastic bottles may make you glow with virtue, but if they have to be carted halfway around the world to be recycled, and then large quantities of energy are consumed in the recyling process, it is far from obvious that you are doing the planet a good turn.

That “glow with virtue” line reminds me of my other Socialist aunt, who a couple years ago stood with pride over her cardboard pallets of paper, cans, and glass (separately), and lectured my mother about how they set everything recyclable aside, and when the boxes are full my uncle drives them down to the recycling center (a couple big aluminum bins with bear-proof drop slots) behind the Safeway in Canmore, full of an air of how wonderful she is for doing this, while my mother nodded, smiled, and bit back the urge to tell her we’ve been doing that in California (minus the driving down to a bear-proof box behind Safeway) since the 80s. I mean, really.

Alternatively, your plastic bottle could be burnt in a power station, its stored energy used to generate electricity that would otherwise require fossil fuels, and the waste heat distributed to local public buildings and homes.

I like it.

Notably, all but one of the remaining [studies that I skipped] that came down in favour of recycling used the assumption that 100 per cent of the plastic could be recycled, which is not reflected in practice. In studies where a more realistic assumption was made, that 50 per cent of the plastic could be recovered, the conclusion was firmly that incineration was better for the environment. In any case, none of the studies reflected what we know from anecdotal evidence happens in practice: that an unknown quantity of recyclable material exported to China ends up being burnt or dumped. It is certainly better for the British environment if waste is shipped off to China, but not so good for the Chinese who have to live with the consequences.

Good lord. China? Will we have to buy carbon credits for our trash, I wonder?